There are several widely accepted certainties when it comes to wine and spirits: Champagne must come from its eponymous region in France; scotch whisky can only be made in Scotland; tequila is only tequila when it hails from certain areas of Mexico. These are, of course, merely simplified glimpses at the many factors that make up each set of regulations surrounding these products, but the element of common knowledge lends itself to a general respect for the rules. Lesser-known spirit categories like rhum agricole, however, do not receive the same treatment.
What Sets Rhum Agricole Apart?
Rhum agricole closely resembles its parent spirit, rum. But there are some notable distinctions. For a rhum agricole to be labeled as such, it must be made from sugar cane juice as opposed to a byproduct, like molasses, which is used to produce the majority of rums on the market. The spirit’s name provides further hints. Rhum is the French spelling of rum, and accordingly, true rhum agricole can only be made almost exclusively in French territories: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion—plus, idiosyncratically, Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco. And agricole is French for “agricultural”; it’s appropriate since the spirit provides a gorgeous flavor expression—grassy, earthy, often funky—of the terroir of the regions in which it’s produced.
There are many other factors that go into this kind of regulation—Martinique has its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) dating back to initial proposal in the 1970s, and the others have equivalent Geographical Indicators (GI) in place, all backed by France’s NAO, spanning harvest season, cane juice minimums, fermentation, still requirements, aging, ABV and the like.
So why are brands outside of these protected areas—namely in the United States—using the term “agricole” on their bottles? According to rhum enthusiast and brand ambassador Benoît Bail, it’s a puzzling (and problematic) phenomenon. “I actually wonder why producers from other countries would like to take the term agricole and put it on their labels, because first of all, it’s a French word, so it doesn’t make sense to use it on foreign labels,” he says. “Secondly, if they use it for that style of production, even if very often they’re closer to the production of clairin from Haiti or cachaça from Brazil, why don’t they use these terms?” Despite being cast aside by the greater rum category decades ago, the agricole category is now a booming one, and the name can carry a perceived allure thanks in part to its niche status.
In an article published by this website in 2017, drinks expert Wayne Curtis explores the birth of American “agricole,” highlighting brands such as High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston, S.C., which produced a limited run of a sugar cane juice spirit it labeled and sold as agricole, alongside several other distillers located in California, Louisiana and more. At the time, this was all a new concept for the American market that took some time to navigate and digest, but by now, this kind of co-opting of the term has started to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many agricole experts.
It begs the question: Is using the term “agricole” to describe a spirit that happens to be made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses simply lending itself to the category’s increasing popularity? Or is it damaging to protected producers? At the very least, it’s not doing the market any favors from an education standpoint. “This brings confusion from a consumer's perspective, since the agricole rhums are known for producing rum this way for hundreds of years now and stand for a certain quality and terroir, which doesn’t necessarily [apply] to the ones from the newcomers,” says Bail.
Kiowa Bryan, the national brand manager and marketing director for Spiribam (which encompasses Rhum Clément, Rhum J.M and others) weighs in. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Just kidding––in this case, it’s not.” she says. “It’s more a problem in the U.S. with our TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] regulations regarding the rum category.” The lack of enforcement by the country’s TTB is laden with irony, says Bryan. “In the U.S., the whiskey category has 33 subcategories, and the rum category has zero. So as much as we’d like to dismantle the ‘no rules in rum’ theory, in the U.S. there are, well, no rules.”
As the great-nephew of Rhum Clément founder Homère Clément, Bryan’s colleague Ben Jones lives and breathes rhum agricole and is pursuing action by the TTB in an effort to bring more recognition to the greater rum category and the diversity within it. “I have petitioned the TTB to make this change and have yet to receive the audience,” he says. “The fix would be as simple as adding a simple addendum directing the reader to reference the rules of AOC Martinique rhum agricole or the rules of the GI for Jamaican rum.” In short, it’s not a matter of creating more rules to maintain the individual integrity of rhum agricole and other sugar cane spirits but to have other government agencies enforce existing ones.
This issue is about more than just the principle. Failing to respect the protection of terms like “agricole” has real consequences, according to Bryan and Jones. “I think mislabeling of this kind, when rhum agricole took many years to define, provides a false narrative as well as a misleading understanding of what flavor profiles should be identified with rhum agricole,” says Bryan. The whole point of AOCs, GIs and other similar protective measures, she says, is to “maintain the basic understanding that particular agricultural products remain true to their geographical, atmospheric and methodical practices.”
“If there’s not more done now to curb this confusion, clever marketers are going to take terminology, generations of hard work and expertise, and strict standards of quality and homogenize these assets with fake garbage and create a storm of deception, [misleading] the American consumer to an agricole product that’s not at all what rhum agricole is supposed to smell, taste, feel or even look like,” says Jones. “It’s as if the genuine rhum agricole has not yet had a chance to establish itself in the U.S. market, but every distiller in the know who has access to some sugar of some kind wants to ‘trade’ off making a rhum agricole by slapping these words on a label.”
While the folks at Spiribam and others fight the good fight to get the TTB to make changes, consumers may wish to direct their energy to making more educated purchases and supporting bona fide agricole producers in the process. According to Jones, these products are generally not difficult to find Stateside: “Perhaps some states are harder than others, but it’s as easy as locating an interesting mezcal in your local market,” he says. “I urge everyone to try the genuine, authentic product.” Bail agrees. “It’s very important to consider the quality of the product you have in your glass and make sure that if you buy a bottle of agricole, it contains the expected quality,” says Bail. “I’m not sure that a new company built five or 10 years ago has the same know-how than a company producing a type of rum for over 100 years and several generations.”
If you’re looking to taste some great agricoles, try any of Rhum Clément or Rhum J.M’s expressions, and Bail makes additional recommendations: Look for bottles by Marc Sassier, the master blender of Martinique’s Rhum Saint James and president of the island’s AOC, and Distillerie Neisson’s Grégory Vernant. HSE Rhums has a wide variety of interesting cask finishes worth trying, depending on what you can get your hands on. Outside of Martinique, Bail suggests checking out Damoiseau rhum, distilled in Guadeloupe.